Why is behavioural science important to advertising?
Kicking off a new monthly series, William Hanmer-Lloyd delves into 250 years of human-focused research to question many of the core beliefs that underpin the ad industry
There has been a lot of debate recently about how important behavioural science actually is to advertising and marketing. With answers ranging from not at all, occasionally, very, to it is fundamental to its future.
I fall very much into the last camp. Alongside great creativity, behavioural science should sit at the core of advertising, shaping how we approach our jobs and how we develop agencies.
Very simply, that is because advertising is about understanding and influencing people’s behaviour. Behavioural science is the most rigorous and revealing way we have of understanding how people behave and what influences their behaviour - and it is telling us that many of the core practices in advertising are built on faulty or outdated assumptions.
Behavioural science’s role
A lot of recent discussion around behavioural science has focused on the useful bits that can be found within the research for that purpose. The biases that can inspire a campaign idea. The nudge that can be applied. The new targeting options that go beyond attitude and demographics.
This is really useful and will hopefully inspire many great campaigns, but it is important that behavioural science does not come to be seen only as an occasionally useful tool; a goody bag we dip into when we want an interesting idea.
That is because the research into humans that has come out of behavioural science for the past 250 years questions many of the core beliefs in our industry. And they deserved to be challenged.
For example, behavioural science has shown that we change our purchase decisions and behaviour based on hundreds of factors that we don’t recognise. We value cookies in an empty jar more, we drink less if others do, and we pick the default option. All without understanding why we have done this, and then we poorly post rationalise our behaviour – making it hard to predict and understand.
On top of this neuroscience shows that our unconscious mind dominates our decision making. But much of our research relies on traditional surveys or qualitative groups full of rational questions, aimed at finding out the answers from the much less significant part of our brain when it comes to decision making.
Other examples include that:
- Most brand metrics are poor brand objectives (there is a lot of academic research showing very limited correlation between an individual’s brand perception and whether they go on to buy the product). Our purchase decisions are usually not driven by brand preference. People’s brand preference is generally driven by whether they have bought the product.
- Consumers views and experiences are not fixed and cannot be understood in isolation. We change our decisions based on a huge number of contextual factors, or our recent experience, or priming. Our perception and experience will change based on our mood, the lighting, the thickness of the glass we drink from.
- Demographic or attitudinal audiences are not reflective of how audiences buy or think, and usually don’t explain who is most likely to be influenced. Behavioural science opens up a wealth of new ways to define an audience, leading to more effective targeting.
- A consumer’s mood when they see an ad will significantly impact how they process and recall it, but is rarely discussed.
If we fully embrace the implications and challenges of behavioural science, then it will force us to change our approach. From how we should research the consumer, to what the objective of our campaign should be, to how we should measure the campaign, to how it works, who should see it, and when.
Change in approach
Embracing behavioural science as an industry means thinking about how a neuroscientist, a behavioural economist, an anthropologist, or a psychologist would approach the business problem. That means hiring people with skills in those disciplines and encouraging them to use their knowledge and giving them time to stay up to date with the latest academic research.
It means we need to care about academic research, build tools and research practices based on the latest approaches to studying human behaviour: implicit response times, emotional monitoring, ethnography, natural language processing.
It means we must find the brand metrics that correlate to behaviour and focus our time on capturing and analysing data on actual human behaviour, such as location, search and social data.
Finally, it means we need to test and test and test. And measure changes in what people do. Not what they say.
Behavioural science isn’t relevant to everything. Great and noticeable creative will always be key. Some ads for some products will just need to be seen once a week by as many people as possible, for as many weeks as possible.
But generally, as media and clients become more diverse, understanding how to influence people becomes more important. Therefore, being built to understand and use behavioural science becomes more important.
That is why strategies should be built on behavioural science. But also, why agencies should adapt their approach to embrace the fundamental challenges and opportunities of behavioural science.
If we do this then we will become experts in helping our clients find the people most likely to be influenced by advertising, the contexts and moments where they are most likely to be influenced, and the messaging and channels most likely to influence them.
Will Hanmer-Lloyd is behavioural planning director at Total Media. He will contribute monthly to Mediatel News, examining the ways behavioural science radically challenges some of the historic approaches of the ad industry